U.S. senators lay out framework for future college sports legislation

A group of United States senators on Thursday morning released a list of items they see as important rights belonging to college athletes that they hope to soon protect or enforce with federal laws.

The College Athletes Bill of Rights intends to provide athletes with a larger voice in the rule-making process, stronger health and safety standards, extended access to educational opportunities and more ways to make money -- including revenue-sharing agreements similar to those in professional sports. These items are designed to be a framework for ongoing conversations about legislation as Congress becomes increasingly involved in imposing new rules on college sports in the coming year, according to Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who led the effort to create the bill of rights.

"It is long past time that the NCAA should have acted on these issues," Booker told ESPN. "I'm looking for legislation to obligate the universities to have rules that protect athletes."

NCAA president Mark Emmert and other college sports stakeholders asked Congress earlier this year to help them by creating a law that would set a nationwide standard for how athletes can make money from third-party endorsement deals, commonly referred to as name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. Multiple states have recently passed NIL laws; Emmert and others believe the differences in those state laws will create an unequal playing field in college sports. The NCAA has asked for a uniform federal law that places some restrictions on NIL opportunities for athletes.

To preempt those state laws, Congress will need to act by July 2021. In a series of hearings this year, several members of Congress have made it clear that they want the NCAA to dramatically increase the benefits college athletes receive if federal lawmakers are going to intervene. Thursday's bill of rights provides the most concrete list of those increased benefits to date.

Their proposal would seek ways to:

• Allow athletes to market their NIL rights in individual deals and group licensing arrangements with minimal restrictions;

• Create revenue-sharing agreements with associations, conference and schools that result in "fair and equitable compensation";

• Develop "evidence-based health, safety and wellness standards" that come with penalties if they are not followed;

• Provide athletes with "commensurate lifetime scholarships" and comprehensive health care coverage for sport-related injuries;

• Increase transparency by mandating schools to provide more detailed reports of their athletic revenues and expenses;

• Ban any restrictions or penalties associated with transferring from one school to another;

• Establish a commission made up of current and former college athletes along with other experts to provide a meaningful voice for athletes in the decision-making process for college sports.

Along with Booker and Blumenthal, at least nine other senators, including Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy, signed on to support the bill of rights. Murphy has been one of the more vocal critics of the NCAA in the past few years.

Murphy told ESPN he expects that the actual legislative process is likely to begin in early 2021 after the new Congress is put in place following this fall's election. He is unsure if all of these measures will end up being part of federal law, but after meeting with NCAA officials multiples times in 2020 he believes the association needed significant prodding.

"There are way too many millionaires working in the college sports industry that don't want to share their fortune with 19- and 20-year-olds," Murphy said. "...They're not going to move. They're going to fight athlete compensation for as long as it takes. They're just in denial that college football and college basketball is professional. They still think that it's 1954. It's not."

Booker, Blumenthal and Murphy all said that recent player-led movements to demand similar rights have had a significant impact on the amount of interest they have been able to generate among their peers in Congress.

"Athletes deserve a lot of credit for coming forward and advocating for themselves in a thoughtful and incisive way," Blumenthal told ESPN. "The activism of the players has greatly heightened the interest and momentum on Capitol Hill. The athletes have stature."

Last week, before the Pac-12 postponed its fall season, a group of football players from the conference announced their intention to sit out of practices and games if the league didn't address a list of their concerns. The players' list and the bill of rights published Thursday include many of the same items. Players from the Big Ten Conference followed suit before their season was postponed with a similar announcement focused on health concerns. Earlier this week, a group of players from all five major conferences declared that it wanted to establish a players' association that would allow them to negotiate for more rights in the future.

Booker, who played football at Stanford, said he admires the courage of the players who have spoken up because they risk losing standing on their teams by doing so. Booker and Blumenthal both said they support the idea of players forming some type of organization that can help advocate for them. The proposal on Thursday was supported by the United Steelworkers union as well as several groups that advocate for the rights of athletes.

One supporting group was the National Collegiate Players Association, which has played a support role in the recent player movements and also Northwestern football players attempt to form a union in 2014. All three senators who spoke to ESPN said they believe there is no legal reason that should prevent players from organizing to bargain for their rights, but that they would be willing to make that option more explicitly available to players in future legislation if needed. NCPA founder Ramogi Huma said the response that some conferences have had to the ongoing pandemic has helped make clear why players need a bigger voice in shaping the future of college sport.

"The push to restart college football during the COVID-19 pandemic without the enforcement of uniform best practice standards in pursuit of football dollars that the players themselves will never touch is just one more example of the exploitation college athletes endure under institutions of higher education," Huma said Thursday morning.

The Pac-12 players who made demands last week asked for a 50% revenue share -- a number similar to the agreements that players have in pro leagues. They said that is one way to rectify racial injustice in a system where many athletes in revenue-generating sports are people of color.

"These are athletes that help to generate incredible amounts of money," Booker told ESPN. "And personnel -- coaches and beyond -- are reaping significant salaries from their labors. It is, to me, exploitative to have people creating wealth but they see no revenue from that whatsoever. And you have a disproportionate number of workers who are Black and brown people."

Booker said he believes the senators are sending a "clear message" that if the NCAA wants a federal NIL law passed in the coming year, the organization will have to include provisions for these other items as well. Booker, Blumenthal and Murphy all said that the coronavirus pandemic and the push for racial justice this summer have made the inequities and civil rights issues in college sports impossible to ignore.

"This isn't radical thinking," Murphy said in a statement. "It's just the right thing to do."

Other politicians have expressed concerns that Congress might be stepping too far outside its comfort zone if it tries to enact expansive reforms in college athletics. Congressman Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) told ESPN earlier this week that he doesn't think federal lawmakers should be involved in governing college sports beyond providing a guideline for NIL deals. Gonzalez, a former college and NFL player, has been working on drafting a version of NIL legislation for the past several months.

"I think Congress can handle the NIL issue, [but] if we open it up to every issue that exists in college sports, I don't think we'll make it better," he said. "I think we'd probably make it worse."

Booker and Blumenthal both said they remain confident that they can generate bipartisan support, despite all of the senators who signed on initially coming from the Democratic Party.